x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

UK report urges 'more cautious approach' to selling arms

Amnesty International and Oxfam have seized on the report's findings, saying they show the UK government's arms sales policies are at odds with its human-rights policies. Omar Karmi reports from London

LONDON // Britain is unlikely to tighten regulations for lucrative military sales, analysts said, even though a new parliamentary report recommends a "more cautious" approach to selling arms to some countries.

Amnesty International and Oxfam seized on the report's findings, released on Wednesday, saying they showed the UK government's arms sales policies are at odds with its human-rights policies.

The House of Commons committees on arms export controls, a cross-party group of parliamentarians from four parliamentary committees, found that some 3,000 licences worth £12 billion (Dh66.95bn) in arms exports had been sanctioned to 27 countries Britain considers to have a questionable human-rights record.

The list includes Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Iran and China.

Many of the 3,000 licences were for the sale of non-lethal equipment, such as communications technology and spare parts, the report found.

Nevertheless, John Stanley, the committee chairman and a former Conservative defence minister, said the number of licences issued to allow weapons sales to such countries was "surprisingly large".

The report recommended a "significantly more cautious" approach to approving sales of equipment to these countries.

But arms sales have been important to a sluggish British economy.

The British arms industry employs an estimated 600,000 people and has proven resilient, despite the uncertain economic climate.

Notwithstanding increased media scrutiny on arms sales to countries "considered controversial", said Neil Partrick, an Arabian Gulf specialist and visiting fellow with the Royal United Services Institute, the "mantra of sales equals British jobs is liable to continue to prove popular".

"There is greater government concern about weapons sales that have almost literally backfired on the UK, for example, sales to Iraq in the 1980s," Mr Partrick wrote in an email response to questions.

Jamie Ingram, a Middle East analyst with IHS Jane's, a group of publications focusing on military analysis, also suggested that the "highly critical" report would have to be weighed against the value of the defence industry to the economy.

"Arms sales are a major contribution to the British economy, and form a key plank of government attempts to reinvigorate [the economy]."

Rights groups hold out hope the report would focus minds on what they said were lax licensing rules, poor enforcement of stipulations regarding the use of the equipment and a lack of transparency.

Oliver Sprague, the arms control expert with Amnesty International, said a number of changes in recent years had resulted in a tightening of arms exports practices, and this report could contribute further in a "slow and incremental" process.

"I would expect one area of improvement after this report would be how the government provides information around its licences," Mr Sprague said.

As result of a policy review undertaken after the Arab Spring, Mr Sprague said he was hopeful the government would implement measures to improve risk assessment of the likelihood that British military equipment would be used in the future, as well as monitoring procedures of post-sale use.

"It's taking a long time. But when [new measures] are implemented that will hopefully result in a tightening of who we sell to."

Mr Sprague cited military sales to Saudi Arabia as an example of where the government policy review had so far not made any change. The parliamentary report singled out sales of equipment to Saudi Arabia as problematic, citing Saudi Arabia's involvement in Bahrain after unrest there during the turmoil of the Arab Spring.

But Mr Partrick suggested it was unlikely to make much of a difference. "It was striking that the report went so far as to argue that some defence sales to Saudi Arabia assisted alleged repression in Bahrain by freeing up Bahraini forces," he said.

"I cannot imagine that this kind of argument will constrain the UK government or galvanise public opinion against such sales."

Britain's relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are the subject of an already under way parliamentary inquiry. But the British government has been vociferous in its defence of arms exports to the region and maintains that it has one of the world's most rigorous arms sales control regimes.

Last year, David Cameron, Britain's prime minister, made three visits to Saudi Arabia and defended arms sales to the country as "entirely legitimate".

okarmi@thenational.ae

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